Chaos and Complexity #2: Fun house mirrors and strange attractors

by Gary Monti on September 21, 2010

Why do chaotic systems behave strangely? The previous blog (Coyotes) touched on this. What’s behind this behavior? In a word, it is ”attractors.” More specifically it is a special type, a strange attractor. Understanding strange attractors helps appreciate the unpredictability. Let’s take a look.


What is an attractor? It is an influence, a tension, or force that affects a situation. There are three types:

  • Point
  • Cyclical
  • Strange

Point attractors bring a system to a distinct, predictable end point. You throw a stone off a cliff and gravity pulls it down to the beach below.

Cyclical attractors cause a system to oscillate. Education programs provide examples of cyclical attractors. Infrastructure grows in a country increasing the demand for civil engineers. Colleges and universities increase the number of engineering students until the market is flooded. Enrollment is then cut back and attrition sets in. The next upswing in the economy increases the demand for more civil engineers.

Strange attractors distort systems. If not addressed they can damage or destroy the system.

Fun House Mirrors

A good visual metaphor for strange attractors is a fun house mirror. Part of what makes them so hilarious is our ability to see the near-impossibility of imagining actually being built that way and trying to function. (Would you really want hips that big?! Could you get into a car if your head was truly that elongated?)

Daily Living

Daily living would be thrown off track if we suddenly were transformed in that manner. This is exactly why strange attractors must be addressed. Failure to address them can lead to the death of or damage to a system. It gets even stranger when the fact is thrown in that strange attractors can be positive, negative, or both.

Take marriage or any committed relationship. It is both a positive and negative strange attractor. Don’t think so? Do you live with someone who squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube? Are you the one who squeezes from the middle? Is there a “right” way to put dishes in the dishwasher?

Railroads, Telephones, and Denial

What can really kill a situation is trying to force a situation that is truly chaotic into one that is cyclical- or point-attractor based. The railroads attempted to do this as did AT&T. Industries lobby for regulation and monopolies as an attempt to stifle any distortion in their business model. In the end, it doesn’t work. It backfires and stifles economies.

In the 19th and early 20th Century railroads in the USA lobbied to get powerful right-of-way controls. When automobile roads improved and trucking came on line in a big way railroads ended up with useless lines and were stuck with a high tax burden plus excessive operating capital requirements to maintain the lines.

If you are old enough you might remember when one had to pay extra for each extension phone in their house. The phone company could monitor the voltage drops to see if anyone was “stealing” from them. The situation was ripe for the anti-trust action against AT&T in 1984.

The Project Management Challenge

Capitalistic economies thrive because of strange attractors. Something new and different is always coming out.  In other words, the world revolves around projects. You know, those temporary endeavors that provide a unique product or service. While projects can be exciting there is a darker flip side. A team can be working well and following project principles when – bang! – a competitor with a new product shows up and changes the game. Think Yahoo vs Google. ROI models get tossed out the window and the underpinning for the project becomes unstable or disappears completely.

The next blog will look at the challenges facing the project manager when working in such a situation. Why is this important? If you’ve been a Project- or Program Manager long enough you can recall the project where the threat or actuality of the rug being pulled out from beneath you has occurred.

Related Articles

Previous post:

Next post: